Tayside and Central Scotland

New solar cloud identified after space weather study

Aurora Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The aurora borealis is created by the effect of solar weather on the Earth

A new form of solar cloud has been identified by research into "space weather" led by Dundee University.

Dr Miho Janvier worked alongside colleagues in Paris and Buenos Aires to study a new kind of magnetic cloud emanating from the Sun.

The cloud is a smaller, distinct version of those caused by solar flares which produce aurora borealis on Earth.

The discovery comes as the Met Office launched a dedicated forecast centre to study solar storms.

The Sun is constantly releasing a "solar wind" of particles into the heliosphere, the area that defines the solar system.

Events on the surface of the star such as solar flares can send a storm of particles across the solar system at the speed of light, accompanied by huge magnetic clouds, which cause the aurora borealis and aurora australis effects in the Earth's atmosphere.

Such solar storms have also been known to knock out power supplies and present a radiation hazard to spacecraft and astronauts, and have become the focus of several studies.

Image copyright NASA
Image caption The Sun constantly ejects a stream of particles known as "solar wind"

Dr Janvier, a fellow in the division of mathematics at Dundee University, has identified a different kind of cloud emanating from the Sun, distinct from those kicked up during solar flares.

"We already knew there were these large magnetic clouds generated by solar flares," she said.

"We also knew that smaller magnetised structures existed, but what we have found is that they have a completely different origin.

"These smaller clouds have different characteristics which meant they must be generated in a different place, or in a different way.

"They must be coming from the Sun, but we are not sure yet where in the Sun's atmosphere they are being born."

Image copyright Other
Image caption The European Space Agency is to deploy a solar orbiter probe to study the sun

Dr Janvier said it was important the new clouds are included in future studies of space weather and how it can affect Earth.

"The important thing is that these new structures we have identified should not be neglected when we are examining space weather and the potential effects it may have on us," she added.

"We have to extend our vision of what is happening in the solar system and what we want to understand and predict."

The study was carried out alongside Pascal Démoulin of the LESIA Observatoire de Paris in France, and Sergio Dasso at the University of Buenos Aires.

The European Space Agency is aiming to launch a probe into orbit around the Sun in 2017 to gain a greater understanding of solar physics.

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